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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature [Hardcover]

Steven Pinker
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 11 2007
By examining our words, we can learn a lot about who we are. So argues Harvard academic and popular science writer Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought, a logical extension of his previous books. Pinker once again caters to a popular (though scientifically literate) audience, using accessible examples from jokes, Shakespeare, pop songs, and films to understand the science. One fascinating chapter explores the value of metaphors; another covers swearing (did you know that "gee whiz" is derived from "Jesus"?). A few critics tired of the myriad examples and pointed out a lack of unifying threads; others wanted more concrete answers; a couple challenged Pinker’s entire thesis that language is an accurate guide to our mind. According to them, it is as if Pinker was determined to combine his broad-based, popular science acumen with his in-depth linguistics expertise—"the perfect storm" of his work. But if this book is not food for thought, then no other book of its kind is.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

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From Publishers Weekly

Bestselling Harvard psychology professor Pinker (The Blank Slate) investigates what the words we use tell us about the way we think. Language, he concludes, reflects our brain structure, which itself is innate. Similarly, the way we talk about things is rooted in, but not identical to, physical reality: human beings take the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them and package their experience into objects and events. Examining how we do this, the author summarizes and rejects such linguistic theories as extreme nativism and radical pragmatism as he tosses around terms like content-locative and semantic reconstrual that may seem daunting to general readers. But Pinker, a masterful popularizer, illuminates this specialized material with homely illustrations. The difference between drinking from a glass of beer and drinking a glass of beer, for example, shows that the mind has the power to frame a single situation in very different ways. Separate chapters explore concepts of causality, naming, swearing and politeness as the tools with which we organize the flow of raw information. Metaphor in particular, he asserts, helps us entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. His vivid prose and down-to-earth attitude will once again attract an enthusiastic audience outside academia. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

Experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Pinker is fascinated by the symbiosis between language and thought. In this stimulating volume, a continuation of the discussion found in The Language Instinct (1994), he argues for the "real-world importance" of "the relation of language to our inner and outer worlds." Anchoring his discussion of why semantics matter to 9/11 and other momentous public events, Pinker teases apart the gap between the literal meanings of words and their elaborate connotations, which leads to fresh explanations of humor, the importance of metaphors, and the significance of swearing. Some of the most mind-expanding chapters involve the subtlest, most taken-for-granted aspects of mind, namely our sense of time, space, and causality. Drawing on philosophy, evolutionary psychology, physics, neurology, anthropology, and jokes, Pinker presents a convincing theory of conceptual semantics, itemizing the "fundamental ideas" that form the "language of thought." From politics to poetry, children's wonderful malapropisms to slang, Pinker's fluency in the nuances of words and syntax serves as proof of his faith in language as "a window into human nature." Seaman, Donna

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On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 A.M., a hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Phew... a tough row to hoe Nov. 17 2007
By J Scott
Pinker pontificates on the particles of ponderment, and it's not always much easier to read than the start of this sentence. I found myself skipping through the denser passages on linguistics and skimmed his more egregious excursions into strawmanderism, but there are plenty of gems here. The chapter on swearing is a scream and I thought he fairly convincing debunked some other theories of the mind (the idea that metaphor is the stuff of thought, for example). Some tantalising glimpses of what our grey matter may be doing up there does come out in Pinker's detailed analysis of language, and this is well worth a read for anyone who's wondered about how it is they wonder.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Stuff of Thought Feb. 10 2009
The Stuff of Thought - Steven Pinker, 2007

The Stuff of Thought ought to be titled The Stuff of Language - a tale told by a linguist full of sound and parsing signifying a fair bit of neat info about language but not a lot spot about the brain. This is because the book leans heavily on linguistics rather than the biological sciences and talks of how language has been taken apart by linguists and what this suggests about how our linguistic minds work. And if that is what you want in a book of this title, written by a well-known, clever, disciple of Chomsky, this is it. Pinker is an engaging, magpie intellectual in that he has an almost endless, tantalizing list of interesting facts, jokes and permutations at his fingertips while ripping through such subjects as: the social purpose of language, the mind as metaphor machine, the relation between language and the 'reality' we share, the relation between words and thinking and emotions, the etymology of words, for example, names, and naming, the symbolism in language, how we say one thing while meaning something quite different, how we use language as a medium of mental exchange, and so on.

The last paragraph of Chapter 1, Words and Worlds, is a quick summary of this book. If you are looking for someone to disaggregate language and show what this reveals about humans, this is a good book to buy. On the other hand, at 439 pages (before chapter notes) of medium-sized print, the book is 100 pages too long. I found myself skipping here and there. Read the first and last chapters first. They tell you the entire book in short form, though there is much fun missed, for ex, the Monty Python Spam skit and the chapter on swearing.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Beneath the Language Feb. 22 2013
By John M. Ford TOP 100 REVIEWER
Stephen Pinker continues his career-long mission to teach the reading public about language. His focus is neither the mechanics of grammar nor the neurological structures that make language possible. Instead he describes mental processes that immediately support language such as metaphor, features that distinguish related sets of words, and the sketchily incomplete mental models we build as we interpret each other's words.

To convince us that small distinctions in language can make a real-world difference, Pinker opens with an insurance claim from the September 11, 2001 destruction of the two World Trade Center towers. The insurer had an upper limit on what they would pay for any single "event" that damaged the buildings. Was the damage caused by the single event of a terrorist attack, as claimed by the insurer? Or was it caused by the separate events of two airplane crashes, as counter-claimed by the buildings' owners? There was no clear answer in the careful legal language of the insurance contract.

There are two ways to read Pinker's book. The first is to read the whole thing, from introduction to closing paragraph. He describes the mental models we build while understanding and reasoning with language. Metaphor helps us use our concrete experience, such as the up/down distinction created by gravity, to inform more abstract dimensions such as better/worse. Pinker also explores the social dimensions that allow us to negotiate relationships while seeming to simply convey information. Having outlined the basics, Pinker turns to more entertaining aspects of language to sharpen our understanding. There is a far-ranging discussion of profanity which describes the "correct" way to swear and explains why some words are taboo.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not up to his previous books Nov. 13 2007
By Eric Lawton TOP 500 REVIEWER
Although there are many interesting ideas in this book, especially the analysis of what fine-grained grammatical distinctions show about our mechanisms of thought, there is too much speculative philosophy. Steven Pinker has lots of facts about language at his disposal, so these excursions are disappointing - let's have more fact and less speculation next time.
Not worth the hardcover price, so you may want to wait for the paperback.
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